Dances with Spain

An unsuspecting traveler falls in love with tribal life

| March-April 2000

The sun was low as the chartered bus labored up the steep dirt track to the wedding reception in the hills above Madrid. We walked up the last of the slope from the buses to the lawn in front of the hunting lodge, where we looked down on the distant city. Middle-aged men and young girls in uniforms circulated among us, carrying trays with drinks, canapés, and sliced Spanish ham streaked with fat. We stayed on the lawn until dark, then moved into the tent attached to the side of the lodge for the formal dinner.

There was a hint of the evening’s message when I heard that the priest who presided at the wedding had officiated at the weddings of the bride’s mother and grandmother. Surely, it should have been clear to me when the men of the tuna, friends of the groom wearing medieval short pants and mantles, threw their cloaks on the ground at the church door and sang to the bride and groom. During supper, the tuna—half fraternity, half glee club, each man a member for life—periodically burst into ribald or romantic song. I should have noticed that all the Spaniards knew the words and sang along. The point was obvious, but with my American eyes I couldn’t see it.

The world of the bride and groom was educated, cosmopolitan, international; their guests included psychiatrists, social workers, and lawyers from Scotland, Colombia, the United States, Great Britain, and Argentina. I was in the new Europe, where half the room spoke English and many of the foreigners Spanish. The groom spoke three languages; his father spoke five. The DJ played disco and American music from the ’70s and ’80s, and Americans, North and South, mixed with Europeans on the dance floor.

But after half an hour the music changed, as Spain, having failed to reach me, resorted to a more direct method. The DJ played a passionate music one could only call Spanish: castanets, guitars, a sensuous, serious sound. Nothing was said, no announcement was made, but the Spanish women all moved to the center of the room, the men stepped back, and the Americans stepped away in confusion. Europe, the modern world: all gone. Three days in Madrid, and I was finally in Spain.

Hands in the air, their hands much of the dance, the women swirled and spun slowly. Some danced with each other, some by themselves; others pulled 12-year-old girls onto the floor to teach them. Paco, a military psychiatrist in his 50s with a large belly, watched his wife’s dancing with adoration, as if he had never seen this entrancing creature before this magical night.

With their dance, the people of Spain jerked me into a world of magicians, hypnotists, gypsies, power, identity. Europe was a conceit, America a hollow thing, but Spain lived. When the music started, the European face disappeared, and I was among the people who had spent seven centuries fighting the Moors, from whom they had taken this dance as finally they had taken back all of Spain. The dancers were from a particular place, with a specific history, a great and long and difficult history.

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